Not Your Typical Hyphenated-American: Young Bukharian Jews Struggle with their American Jewish Identity
David Abayev is a successful Manhattan accountant. He attended American schools, wears chic professional clothes, sips coffee at Starbucks, and speaks perfect English, with little indication that until 1991 he lived in Uzbekistan.
At 29, Abayev still lives with his parents in Fresh Meadows, Queens, because in the culture of the Bukharian Jews, whose traditions developed in Central Asia, adults leave home only to begin their own families. Despite the difficulties of living at home, he believes moving out is inappropriate. “We don’t do that,” he said. “You stay with your parents until you get married, then you move not far away. “But before he can do either, Abayev must find a Bukharian Jewish woman who meets his parents” approval. And although Abayev admits to feeling tempted to move out of his parents’ house, – really can’t do that,” he says. “If you leave you’re hurting yourself. You may find a job and girlfriend but you won’t have a family connection. You won’t have bachsh on Friday night,” referring to a traditional Bukharian dish.
Abayev is one of approximately 40,000 to 50,000 Bukharian Jews in Queens, according to BukharianJews.com. The Bukharians trace their history to the Jewish migration to the Persian Empire after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. In the 16th century, Bukhara, an ancient city in Uzbekistan and a commercial center on the Great Silk Road, became a center for the Jewish population in Central Asia, and the community took on the name Bukharian Jews.
Bukharian Jews immigrated en masse to the United States, particularly to Queens, and to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Soviet-sponsored atheism gave way to a fear of Islamic fundamentalism. Uzbekistan’s economy deteriorated, leaving few opportunities for its citizens.
The story of this community is one of a struggle to maintain its unique identity while confronting the economic and cultural pressures of the United States. This is most apparent among the young Bukharian Jews like Abayev, who left Uzbekistan after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and are now trying to define their identities apart from the surroundings that shaped their heritage and traditions. A few are quickly assimilating into secular American culture, but most are not.
For some, defining their identity means using new-found religious freedom and knowledge to rediscover the traditional Jewish observances of their ancestors. Isabella Roberts, Youth Committee Coordinator for the Bukharian Jewish Congress, said 10 percent of the community is moving closer to Orthodox Judaism as it is practiced in America, although other community members estimate closer to 30 percent. But for the majority in the tight-knit community, being a Bukharian Jew increasingly means emphasizing the cultural traditions they brought with them from Uzbekistan, creating organizations and institutions to perpetuate knowledge of Bukharian Jewish history, food, music, and family values.
Abayev, for example, defines himself as “50 percent Bukharian, 30 percent Jewish, and 20 percent American.” He talks passionately about attending celebrations with Bukharian music, eating traditional home-cooked food, welcoming guests, and spending Friday night dinners with family. Bukharian culture is integral to Abayev’s identity. “It’s part of you,” he said. “To change would be partial suicide.”
To ensure that others follow Abayev’s path, some young adults are starting organizations to keep Bukharian Jewish culture alive. Peter Pinkhasov, 28, a paralegal, wears a gold Star of David necklace and no yarmulke, and became interested in the Bukharian Jewish traditions as a child hearing his grandfather’s stories. “I always felt proud of being a Bukharian Jew,” he said. “It’s the way I grew up, my childhood traditions, the way my grandparents live.”
After moving to Connecticut in 1993 at age 16 (he came to Lefrak City, NY, in 2002), Pinkhasov searched for Bukharian Jews on the Internet and found only scattered websites. “There was no information on our history, culture, traditions. It was like we never existed,” he said. So he wrote his own community history and started BukharianJews.com in 1999. Today, the website has more than 950 registered members who chat, view photos, listen to music, and learn about Bukharian Jewish history, traditions, and culture.
Pinkhasov attends synagogue on the High Holidays and sometimes on Shabbat, for social and cultural reasons. “It’s like a cultural club,” he said. “You can meet friends, talk to different people, just be with Bukharian Jews.” Nearly all his friends, he said, are Bukharian. “Every Bukharian is proud of being Bukharian,” he said. He ticked off a list of traditions’ respect for one’s elders, food, language, religious customs, and family values. “You may not be religious but you know you’re Bukharian.”
Six years later, the site has spawned other activities. Imonuel Rybakov, 23, a Queens College finance major, became involved with BukharianJews.com and in 2002 founded the Association of Bukharian Jewish Youth of the USA-Achdut (unity), a cultural organization that targets Bukharian Jews ages 16 to 35. The group runs festivals, lectures, a band, political volunteering, and online Bukharian Jewish language classes. Rybakov hopes to expand to theater, sports clubs, college planning sessions, and more.
“We want to continue among youth the music, culture, and traditional knowledge,” he said. “People are busy with jobs, and don’t have enough time to educate children. Children become Americanized.” Rybakov continued, “When a child becomes a teen, he asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Bukharian Jew?’ ‘What’s the difference between us and others?’ And sometimes parents can’t explain.” He hopes that with the help of his organization, “Step by step, youth [will] become involved in Jewish tradition and community life.”
But for some Jews of Abayev and Rybakov’s generation, culture is not enough. Some are turning to the Orthodox Judaism that they find in American yeshivot or religious schools and communities. One of those Jews is Sonya Penkhasova, 24, a student at LaGuardiaCommunity College. Penkhasova moved to Queens in 2000 with some religious knowledge, having attended a Jewish school in BukharaU.S., she began to see the differences between her Jewish practice and the observance of those around her. since 1991, but without the same level of observance as her American Orthodox counterparts. When she came to the
“I came to America and see people are different,” she said. “You wonder: Can I handle that? Can I wear a skirt or keep Shabbos?” She began to learn the laws and little by little, started wearing only skirts, observing Shabbat, and eating only kosher food. Penkhasova explained that to keep kosher in Uzbekistan, “You have to drive so far, buy live animals, get them home, get a rabbi to kill them,” she explained. “But here it’s easy. You go to any kosher store, buy a snack, and eat it.”
Another young, newly Orthodox Jew is Larissa Mullodzhanova, 20. One Friday night at Mullodzhanova’s home, Shabbat candles were lit and the table was set. A home-cooked feast with bachsh (rice, meat and cilantro) and oshi piyozi (rice and meat wrapped in onions) brought smells of Uzbekistan into the small Lefrak City apartment. Mullodzhanova’s husband arrived home from synagogue, and her sisters walked over from nearby apartments. The women wore shirts with high necklines and skirts covering their knees. The married sisters’ stylish scarves covered their hair in accordance with Orthodox Jewish tradition.
Mullodzhanova was not raised this way. In Uzbekistan, the family was traditional, but not Orthodox. Her father still turns on lights and drives on Shabbat. His mother, who lives with the family, is also traditional but not religious. But in America, Mullodzhanova’s mother, a pediatrician in Uzbekistan, started taking classes with the rabbi and reading the Torah and the Prophets. Her four daughters attended American yeshivot and became more observant. The two oldest are married to Orthodox Bukharian men, and plan to send their children, now babies, to yeshiva. The family accepts the religious differences, with siblings running back and forth between the sisters’ and their parents’ apartments in adjacent buildings. “We’re from yeshiva; he was raised in this culture,” Mullodzhanova said of her father.
The family’s experience, with the younger generation becoming more observant than the older, is not extraordinary. “Our generation is more religious than our parents,” said Mullodzhanova’s brother-in-law, Boris Abramov, 24. Abramov and his wife both attended American Jewish day schools; although in Uzbekistan they observed Jewish holidays and kept many traditions, it was not until they arrived in the U.S. that they learned the laws and reasons behind the traditions and started keeping them more strictly. Orthodoxy was not new to Abramov, who grew up hearing stories of his grandfather, who had spent 25 years in Soviet jails for selling kosher meat.
Many young immigrants like Abramov had traditional grandparents who were caught during the Soviet purges of religion in the 1930s when Jewish educational, cultural, and religious centers in Uzbekistan were closed. Jewish government officials, clergy, writers, and teachers were fired, arrested, or executed for advancing Jewish practices and culture. Farms were shut down, schools were closed, and publication of newspapers, magazines, and books in the Bukharian Jewish language (a dialect of Farsi) ceased. After World War II, Jews faced extortion and the threat of imprisonment or execution on false charges. In the predominantly Muslim country, after the founding of the State of Israel and the 1967 War, anti-Semitism intensified.
Jewish children attended school on Saturday, a mandatory school day. Few Jews of any age attended synagogue, because doing so could cost worshippers a job or social status. Studying religion seriously was impossible.
But families like Mullodzhanova’s and Abramov’s kept traditions privately. Parents cooked Bukharian Jewish foods and taught their children respect for elders and hospitality to guests. Jews formed tight-knit communities and married only among themselves. They lit Shabbat candles, fasted on Yom Kippur, and observed marriage ceremonies, circumcision, and lifecycle events.
One major factor in the religious revitalization of those like Mullodzhanova and Penkhasova is education. Many immigrants have access to Jewish day schools for the first time in their lives. Chief Rabbi Itzhak Yehoshua estimates that approximately 40 percent of Bukharian Jewish elementary school students nationwide attend Jewish schools, half of them Bukharian schools.
About 70 percent of Bukharian Jewish Queens youth attend one of the area’s 10 to 15 yeshivot, according to the Bukharian Jewish Congress. Attendance is rising due to the four-year-old Gymnasia, a tuition-free yeshiva in Rego Park funded by Israeli-Bukharian philanthropist Lev Leviev for Bukharian Jewish students from public school. Although many of the Gymnasia’s teachers and faculty are American, the student body-650 students in kindergarten through ninth grade-is completely Bukharian.
Most of the Gymnasia’s parent body is not observant, according to Secular Studies Principal Deborah Pack, but they want their children to learn Jewish traditions. “There’s an active choice to put children in yeshiva,” Pack said. “They want their children to be Jewish, to teach the child the aleph bet-Hebrew alphabet-and the blessings. They want to acculturate, but keep their cultural traditions intact.”
“This generation will be more knowledgeable than the previous generation about how to live a Jewish life,” predicted Faye Rottenberg, Judaic Studies Principal. “In America, parents need to educate children to avoid intermarriage. There will be more realization that this is what saves their children.”
And sometimes American culture can be what keeps young adults tied to their roots. “I look at America, and values of family are really lost,” Abayev said. Though he finds it difficult at 29 to have his parents constantly watching over him, “I’d like my children to be with me as well,” he said. “I don’t want a child to leave at 18 and to see him once a month.”
Abayev attended a Forest Hills public school, then St. Johns University; he works with American coworkers, and he has even dated American girls. But at the end of the day, when it comes to finding a wife or living with his family, he said, “I feel more comfortable with my own kind.”